Tags: Analysis: Ill Chavez Clouds Venezuela Future

Analysis: Ill Chavez Clouds Venezuela Future

Tuesday, 28 Jun 2011 12:33 PM

President Chavez’s extended absence demonstrates the leadership void without him while domestic woes continue to mount.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been incommunicado since undergoing unscheduled surgery in Cuba, reportedly for a pelvic abscess on June 10th. The usually verbose Chavez, who has spoken an average of 43 minutes per day on television and interrupted regularly scheduled broadcasts 2,135 times since taking office, has issued only two public missives and made one private call to party leaders since the surgery. His last public speech was on 12 June, when he called the Telesur television network and explained that he sought treatment in Cuba, the final stop in a Latin American tour, after feeling pain in his abdomen at previous stops. On 24 June, he sent several messages from his Twitter account marking the anniversary of a Venezuelan battle for independence and proclaiming his solidarity with the people. He reportedly called party leaders yesterday to instruct them on running the government and issue support for their actions.

The uncharacteristic lack of communication from Chavez is fueling speculation about his health. Supporters say Chavez is recuperating and will return in time for flamboyant July 5th bicentennial celebrations and a Chavez-hosted regional summit. However, some members of the opposition and media are promoting reports that Chavez is extremely ill, possibly with prostate cancer.


Chavez probably is suffering from some ailment, but his death does not appear imminent and he almost certainly will return to Venezuela in time for Venezuelan Independence Day celebrations on July 5th. If Chavez was seriously ill, politicians in his inner circle would be jockeying to fill his position and lobbying Chavez for his blessing. Moreover, if Chavez was gravely ill, he probably would return to Venezuela immediately to bask in the adoration of his supporters and seek treatment from his own physicians.

The President’s absence coincides with growing dissent and domestic difficulties. Chavez retains a 50% popularity rating, but is facing the lowest approval numbers in eight years. Although the economy now has positive growth, thanks to higher oil prices, Venezuela’s 22% inflation rate is the highest in Latin America and the public is dealing with skyrocketing prices and a lower standard of living. Electricity shortages, rolling blackouts, food shortages, capital flight, problems with health care, and government failure to rebuild homes devastated by floods are all fueling discontent with Chavez. A deadly prison riot last week in a facility housing more than three times its capacity caused another headache for the government.

Regionally, Chavez has lost credibility as more rational leftist leaders such as Lula de Silva in Brazil have emerged and Chavez has failed to implement his grandiose regional projects such as refineries and a natural gas pipeline.


Despite Chavez’s efforts to keep a lid on dissent, there are increasing calls by the public for change. Chavez is no longer able to assuage domestic and regional concerns with short term financial fixes since domestic problems have grown and oil revenue has shrunk. To fix the domestic crisis, Chavez will have to implement significant economic and social reforms, an unlikely scenario in the run-up to the 2012 elections, because belt-tightening would hurt his popular support..

Opposition leaders believe Chavez is intentionally avoiding public appearances to create a “triumphant return” to Venezuela. According to Reuters, they believe Chavez will arrive in Venezuela with great ceremony, blaming the US and the Venezuelan opposition for fomenting unrest with discussion of his illness. They believe the deliberate lack of information is an attempt to distract the public from domestic problems.


A staged absence to gain even more attention is in character for Chavez, who no doubt is pained by his lower popularity ratings. His reemergence in Venezuela on its bicentennial, which promises to be a grand event with extensive pageantry, would relieve the concerns of supporters and gain Chavez a temporary reprieve from criticism. His symbolic resurrection would be short-lived, however, since domestic problems will worsen without sincere government intervention. Moreover, another flash point like the prison riots may make it impossible for Chavez to delay his return and his physical presence may be needed to put a lid on dissent.

Upon his return, Chavez is likely to take steps to demonstrate his control of the country which the opposition is questioning. He may crack down on dissent, for example, and put further limitations on the media to quiet mushrooming criticism of his administration. One of his primary goals will remain consolidating his position before the 2012 election and he has demonstrated a willingness to take whatever action necessary to extend his mandate.

The underlying issue with Chavez out of the country is the lack of a real succession mechanism in Venezuela. Under the Constitution, the Vice President assumes power if the President is incapacitated. However, Vice President Elias Jaua has refused to take power. Time Magazine reports that officials in Venezuela are attempting to avoid any moves that might appear to usurp Chavez.


Chavez’s abrupt departure likely would lead to chaos and violence since he has created a cult of personality with no natural successor. To secure his power, Chavez has not only undercut viable challengers, he has emasculated democratic institutions that could oversee a peaceful succession. Without an anointed heir or a respected accepted succession mechanism, numerous factions would arise to compete for control, including hard-line members of Chavez’s own party, businessmen, and opposition candidates. The Venezuelan military may also attempt to intervene, possibly even taking political control to calm the situation.

Due to the highly personalized political system under Chavez, political reform in Venezuela is unlikely while he retains control. Elections next year are unlikely to resolve the succession issue. If Chavez wins, he is unlikely to groom a successor who could challenge his authority. Instead, he will focus on self-promotion, ruling through charisma and using oil profits to fund his programs. Both Chavez and his elder brother have alluded to extrajudicial actions to retain power even if he loses the 2012 election, making it likely he will remain President regardless of the electoral outcome.

[Lisa M. Ruth is a former CIA analyst and officer. She is currently Managing Partner of C2 Research, a boutique research and analysis firm in West Palm Beach, Florida and is vice president at CTC International Group, Inc., a private intelligence firm.]

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Analysis: Ill Chavez Clouds Venezuela Future
Tuesday, 28 Jun 2011 12:33 PM
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